Two weeks ago more than 50 million Americans watched the New York Football Giants (what's with the "Football" part of their name anyway? There hasn't been a "Giants" baseball team in New York for more than 50 years now) defeat the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Playoff Game to decide who will face the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl on Sunday. This was the largest audience for an NFL playoff game since the 1994-1995 season. The ratings were all the more remarkable given that 16-18 years ago there were far fewer media options, nary an Internet and recording a show on your VCR was a monumental pain.
Some ascribe football's recent huge ratings to its escapist nature, the vicarious violence acting as a salve to the frustrations of an American public over the seemingly never-ending recession and the beer consumed concurrently with the games as a balm to soothe Americans' anxieties. For three hours or more we Americans get to virtually crush something or somebody whereas in real life many of us feel pretty powerless and besieged. We get to be a part of something bigger than ourselves and garner some reflected glory the next day at the gym or water cooler if our team wins. The vicarious release of repressed frustration is also why violent video games are posting gigantic sales numbers as well. Will the NFL do as well if the economy turns around, I wonder?
Others credit the proliferation of "Wild Card" teams in the playoffs of both football and baseball for ramping-up the popularity of both sports on TV and at the stadiums -- professional sports have been termed the "ultimate reality programming," because you never know what's going to happen. Wild Cards add uncertainty and unpredictability to be sure, but they also add a measure of unfairness. Take a look at the 15-1 Green Bay Packers and their quarterback Aaron Rodgers, arguably one of the top three QBs in the game today -- they do an astonishing job all season with the best record in the NFL and then lose in their first post-season outing to the Giants who had a paltry 9-7 record, and only got into the post-season because everyone else in the NFC East did worse. New Yorkers are understandably elated that the Giants managed to win their last five games, including their last three playoff games on the road, but if you lived is Wisconsin, you might be crying "foul." The same goes for the New Orleans Saints with a 13-3 record and their outstanding quarterback Drew Brees who will also be watching the big game from their couches Sunday evening.
It has come to a point where winning your division, whether in football or baseball isn't a guarantee of anything -- the late bloomers can come and take a whole season's worth of outstanding play away. So while there is a ragingly unpredictable entertainment value to the Wild Card, the issue of "fairness and equity" (to paraphrase President Obama) may be sorely lacking. New Yorkers are happy the Giants have been dealt a winning hand and all New Yorkers wish them victory over the hated New England Patriots on Sunday, but if a New York team were 15-1 or 13-3 and sitting out the big game, I'm sure most of us would not be pleased.
Therein lies the current American conundrum -- it is fair to say that the Giants are the "free market capitalists" of the NFC and the post season is a form of unfettered capitalism that makes football a red-meat metaphor for the American way of life -- the Giants as Wall Street corporate raiders or venture capitalists, swooping in on that big deal at the last moment with the inherent unfairness of unbridled capitalism manifest in putting the best product on the market, even if you're a late entry and irrespective of how long some other team has been slogging away at it. Tell it to Eastman Kodak or Polaroid after digital photography stole their thunder.
The Giants and the NFC also represent conservative, established interests. Most teams in the NFC are old time original professional football teams -- kind of like mid 20th Century blue chip stocks. Teams like the aforementioned Packers and Saints, teams such as the Lions and Eagles and Bears (oh my!). There are even Cardinals, Rams and Cowboys. There is a Wall Street-Super Bowl index that posits that when NFC teams win the big game, the stock market goes up and when AFC teams win, the market goes down. In this contest Tom Brady and the Patriots represent liberal "Taxachusets" and the Hollywood/Media Elite and the Giants are representing Chris Christie's New Jersey.
The Giants will be the default "home team" for Red State Republicans and Joe Sixpacks from coast to coast. Brady is a jet-setter married to A-list super model Gisele Bundchen and they live in a $20 million L.A. mansion. The Giants' Eli Manning is a shy, self-effacing family man living in suburban New Jersey whose biggest celebrity moments are doing Toyota Camry commercials. The Giants are come from behind underdogs while the Pats come with an air of arrogance and entitlement. Sunday's game will be a clash of the two Americas, a precursor to the big contest in November for the future of the country.